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Think About It (Just a Little Patience)
2008-04-21 05:23
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

When Pat Jordan told me that he still uses a typewriter to write his stories instead of a computer I wasn't surprised. He's so old school, why would he change? His wife calls him a trogliodyte, kicking a screaming into the 19th century. A few years later, I visited Pat at his home in Florida and looked through hundreds of manuscripts and drafts. I saw his tools of ignorance: an old Hermes 10 typewriter (he buys old machines on ebay for the parts), yellow second sheets (discontinued), stubby corrective pencils, a glue-pot, a pair of sissors, and even a bottle of yellow white out (also discontinued). Having come from a fine arts background, I could immediately relate to the tactile nature of Pat's writing process.

And in fact, if I've learned anything from Pat, it is how important thinking is to good writing. Jordan is a deliberate and meticulous writer. When he has a magazine assingment, he first researches the subject, reading as many articles as his researcher can find, then composes his own questions before he conducts interviews and takes notes. Then he transcribes those interviews, orgainzes them with his notes and then he begins to make outlines. If afforded the time, he'll review the notes, the transcribed interviews and his outlines, and revised outlines, over and over before he starts writing. He might not stick to his outlines, might alter them as he goes, but he always has them as a safety net, a way to organize and structure his thinking. When he finally does begin to write, he goes sentence-by-sentence. If he writes two pages a day--a productive day for him--when he starts again in the morning, he'll review what he wrote, revise anything that needs fixing, and then proceed.

The tools Pat uses to write are antiquated but they are an essential part of his thinking and his writing. When I worked in post-production, I was fortunate enough to be on jobs with Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers, who all still cut on film when I was with them (mid-90s). The physical nature of the medium forced the editor and director to make hard, clear descisions. For instance, if you made a cut on Tuesday, it would take a lot of time and man-power to fix it by Thursday. And even after Joel and Ethan had previewed a reel on their KEM flatbed, it would take five, six minutes to rewind the reel to the head, during which time they would sit and contemplate what they had just watched. I learned to value this down-time, how productive it was for them to be able to think things through.

All three filmmakers cut on computers now. Last winter I spoke with Paul Barnes, Burns' longtime editor, and asked if he'd ever go back to cutting on film. "Not in a million years," he said. But he doesn't need to. He got his chops the old fashioned way, so the new technology is simply a dream. However, for a younger generation, who didn't grown up cutting on film, there can, at times, be too many choices, so many options that the creative process is overwhelmed by possibilites.

I was thinking of Pat and his old typewriter late last week when I caught the following Q&A with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in Entertainment Weekly:

SPIELBERG: I guess the worst thing he ever called me was old-fashioned. But I celebrate that. He knows me like a brother. It's true, I am old-fashioned.

LUCAS: I think the word ''Luddite'' came into it. In a very heated discussion.

SPIELBERG: I said I wasn't, I was Jewish! [Laughter]

LUCAS: The end of it is, I said, ''Look, Steve, this is your movie. You get to do it your way.'' And in the end, I didn't force Steven to do it. That doesn't mean I didn't pester him, and tease him, and get on him all the time.

SPIELBERG: It was all 35-millimeter, chemically processed film.... I like cutting the images on film. I'm the only person left cutting on film.

LUCAS: And I'm the guy that invented digital editing. But we coexist. I mean, I also like widescreen and color. Steven and Marty [Scorsese] have gone back and shot in black-and-white [on Schindler's List and Raging Bull, respectively]. I don't get on their case and say, ''Oh my God, this is a terrible thing, why are you going backwards?'' I say, ''That's your choice, and I can appreciate it.''

SPIELBERG: Eventually I'll have to shoot [and edit] movies digitally, when there is no more film — and I'm willing to accept that. But I will be the last person to shoot and cut on film, y'know?

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is the editing part getting harder to do the old way, when the rest of the industry is using electronic editing on computers?

GEORGE LUCAS: He still uses a Moviola! One of these days, the belt will break on it. And he'll go down to one of those repair places and they'll say, ''Oh, I'm sorry, sir, we don't sell those anymore.''

STEVEN SPIELBERG: We cut on a Moviola, and we preview on a KEM.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Wow — so wait, let's get this right for our readership. A KEM is a so-called flatbed editing machine, which came into fashion around the 1970s as a replacement for Moviolas, which go back to the '20s. And you and your editor Michael Kahn still use both?

SPIELBERG: I own about 30 KEMs. We cannibalize them for bulbs and parts. It's like the Concorde in the last three years of its service.

LUCAS: Steven enjoys the look and feel of the technology that existed when he came into the movie business. He's familiar with it, it's comfortable, he likes it, he's nostalgic about it. But he is not above, when we've got a problem, using new technology to say, ''I will solve this problem that way. I am not gonna just do it the old way for its own sake.''

An editor told me recently that he believes computers set writing back fifty years. I'm not convinced of that. But I do believe there is something to be cherished about the idea of working slowly and carefully. We don't always have the time. But when we do, I believe it shows up in the work.

Here's a good bit from a recent interview Pat did with Playboy:

JORDAN: I grew up with radio and as a result I'd go to bed at night listening to "The Shadow," "The Lone Ranger," "Batman and Robin," "The Green Hornet" and with radio I had to use my imagination to figure out what they look like. What does The Shadow look like? And so it stimulated my imagination and it made me very conscious of the way things look. To this day I'm very detail oriented, but unlike Tom Wolfe, who lists 48 things that a guy is wearing to supposedly describe him, I say it is not the accumulation of detail, it is right details. If you get the right details, you allow the reader to create the scene himself. It is always about the reader, I want the reader to think he wrote the story and that I didn't.

PLAYBOY: You mention this in the book's forward…

JORDAN: You create the ideal story when at the end of it the reader can't yellow out a paragraph on page three and point to where you told him what the story was about. The reader needs to think that they discovered something in the story that the author didn't because the author didn't spell it out. If the writer doesn't hand it to him the reader to thinks that they are in the process of discovering more of the story than the writer intended to put in. I think of it as a collaborative deal.

PLAYBOY: So you've made a living by making people think that you aren't as smart as you actually are?

JORDAN: Exactly. They don't think that you are leading them and they don't know you set it up bit by bit. As far as sentences go, I feel that you should never have a sentence so complex that the reader has to stop and go over it again to get the meaning. The same applies to images. If you use a metaphor you need the reader to not reread the metaphor over again and sit down and think, "What does he mean a cow is like a moon?" If the reader has to unravel a sentence or a metaphor, that's bad. You want them to read it all through effortlessly so they would be reading the story as if they were looking over your shoulder when you were typing. Some stories come easily. The stories you think came easily you think are genius and it comes out later that they weren't that good. And the one that was like pulling teeth, that you had to bang on your typewriter like hammering nails into wood, that you hated doing because it was so hard to get right, you find out that that was the good one. In the end you want it to appear that the story is flowing out of you and that it is effortless. These are all the things that you do that nobody knows about.

The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan is now on sale.

Comments
2008-04-21 06:25:35
1.   mehmattski
Computers didn't kill writing, they only killed perfectionism. It is now much easier to publish anything you want without going over it carefully, without typing so slowly that you notice each and every misstroke on the keyboard. While this definitely allows writers with less skill and less dedication out into the wild, it also gives the best writers time to focus on improving facets of their work that actually matter, like paragraph structure.

In eighth grade, I had an algebra teacher who was convinced that calculators were the devil (when Waterboy came out I was convinced they based the mom on my teacher). Calculators would ruin my brain and I would become too dependent upon them. Well, she was right- I can't do more than simple arithmetic in my head. But when I'm trying to understand relationships in evolutionary biology, math isn't exactly the top concern- I set up an excel spreadsheet to do the multiplying and regressing for me, and it free me to concentrate on important things.

In 2008, my school (Duke University) now requires that all theses be submitted electronically. For grad students, there's no underestimating the impact such a decision has. A decade ago, all theses had to be hand-typed; I can't even imagine that kind of undertaking. Writing 500+ pages with strict style and format guidelines is hard enough when you don't have to stop every ten seconds to wipe out a typo. Now, a red squiggly line patiently reminds me that I have spelled jugement wrong once again, and a programming algorithm automatically corrects my teh's and my Febuary's and I move on.

Will the loss of perfectionism lead to further dumbing-down of the English language, so that youngsters can only type in lowercase single letter syllables ("c u l8r!")? Of course, but the dumbing down of the English language is one of those inescapable tides, wouldnst thou agreest?

Besides, I'm pretty sure Bill Plaschke would be writing one-paragraph sentence fragments in cuneiform, too.

2008-04-21 06:49:33
2.   Alex Belth
When I'm writing an article, I print it out, make corrections and notes with a pen, then go back in an implement them on the computer. Since I type much faster than I could ever write longhand, computers are wondeful for me. There is one writer, Pat Conroy, who still writes longhand. I can't imagine that.
2008-04-21 07:11:18
3.   Schteeve
When I leave comments at the Banter, I stand at a podium on my terrace, and write them out on white parchment, with a thick stubby grease pencil.

Then I have my manservant, Cervando, read them back to me in Portugese. I write them out in portugese using a Burnt Sienna crayon, on a piece of an old boat sail.

Finally, I use voice recognition software to upload them to the web.

2008-04-21 07:13:57
4.   JL25and3
1 "Computers didn't kill writing, they only killed perfectionism." Funny, as a perfectionist myself, I find the computer more daunting, more paralyzing than the pen or typewriter.

With old-fashioned tools, putting the words down on paper involved a certain commitment. Even if I wasn't satisfied, there was a certain imperative to keep going forward, then go back and make changes.

But the computer allows for infinite and immediate revisions. I can try to make each sentence just so before I go on to the next one - and my obsessive perfectionism generally demands that I do so.

2008-04-21 07:21:07
5.   Matty B
1 You may also want to consider how word processors force an endless series of revision: when writing on, say, Microsoft Word, editing is remarkably easy. As a Ph.D student in English, I find that my colleagues, and myself, will edit and alter our papers until the eleventh hour. There are a lot of people who see this as a good thing; however, perhaps, for people who are somewhat perfection-minded to begin with, this is a detriment. Alex's piece on Pat Jordan raises a series of interesting questions: one can always already be editing on a word processor, so when does a writer know when to stop? is a work ever finished? is it always the subject of mutation?

I don't see swiftly-evolving technology as being responsible for the dumbing down of language. That would assume that there was a "pure" language to begin with, and that technology is corroding and adulterating that purity. However, languages are in a constant state of change, susceptible to mass movements of peoples, shifts in regime, technology (think of what the printing press meant to language; the debate is almost the same as today!), and, of course, time.

As Alex wrote in 2 , the primary advantage of computers is economical. As a philosopher I read a lot (Derrida) says, "The word processor saves us an amazing amount of time. We acquire a freedom that we perhaps wouldn't have acquired without it. But the transformation is economic, not structural."

2008-04-21 07:33:50
6.   mehmattski
5 I am willing to back off of my first sentence based on your points and those made in 4 . Editing on a computer does indeed allow for endless editing, I suppose that most people ignored small errors while on a typewriter. It was only the most stringent of perfectionists who would go back over every small error with correction fluid. These days, being a perfectionist means editing that eleventh time when a sentence could use just a tiny amount of improvement. If only sports editors were as demanding as peer-reviewed journals...

The parallels to the advent of the printing press are interesting. The masses can now read! It will destroy our society! Languages are definitely evolving things, no matter what the purists say. Purists are a funny thing, because whatever is supposed to be "pure" is taken from some arbitrary point in time (usually, the time from which the purist comes).

Funny how you never see arguments that the pitching distance should return to 45 feet (1845), that hitting a runner with the ball results in an out, kickball-style (1848), that balls caught on one hop were outs (1858), or that runners should not be allowed to overrun first base (1870). A true purist would long for these things like I long for a good bagel in North Carolina (a lot).

2008-04-21 07:49:06
7.   Shaun P
4 5 6 As an attorney, I spend large parts of every day writing, and then editing, repeatedly. One of my mentors impressed upon me that there is no such thing as good legal writing, only good legal editing. The best legal editing, he said, was repeated continuously until you have to file the damn thing.

After I think I'm done writing something, I tend to put it aside for a few days, maybe even a week. I find that helps me edit, and re-edit, with a fresh perspective. Then, when I'm close to a deadline, I print the document out and review it with pen or pencil. That gives me a feeling of closure, so I don't keep re-editing until I have only two minutes left to file it.

I could not imagine trying to write a patent application by typing on a typewriter. Sometimes I wonder if the explosion in the number of patent applications has more to do with word processing then increased inventiveness.

2008-04-21 07:56:19
8.   wsporter
MFD ". . . there is no such thing as good legal writing, only good legal editing. The best legal editing, he said, was repeated continuously until you have to file the damn thing."

Boy is that the truth; It's like you're married to the damn things until you have to fire them off.

2008-04-21 08:20:26
9.   51cq24
don't waste paper, adapt
2008-04-21 08:30:00
10.   Shaun P
8 MFD, in that light, electronic filing systems are both a blessing, and a curse. If I need to, I file a doc at 11:59 PM and meet the midnight deadline. But that also means I could keep editing until 11:58 PM . . .
2008-04-21 08:38:18
11.   wsporter
10 MFD, Same thing here which is why I'm often checking in at the Banter at some ungodly hour cause I can't sleep from the adrenalin rush of getting it done.
2008-04-21 09:34:55
12.   Ben
[3.] Schteeve... what's computereeze for you just make me choke with laughter.... YJMMCWL
2008-04-22 07:11:43
13.   Keith R A DeCandido
"An editor told me recently that he believes computers set writing back fifty years."

And one hundred years ago, curmudgeons were saying the exact same thing about the manual typewriter, that it was ruining things and making it too easy for people who were too lazy to write by hand. It's the same dumbshit argument, and it doesn't make any more sense now than it did a century ago.

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